Politics

Lieutenant gubernatorial candidates gather in Rutland for 1st debate

Managing Editor Paul Heintz kicks off VTDigger’s Lieutenant Governor Debate at the Paramount Theater in Rutland on Wednesday, June 15. Photo by Glenn Russell/VTDigger

RUTLAND — The candidates for lieutenant governor took the stage Wednesday night at the Paramount Theater in an attempt to differentiate themselves in the race for Vermont’s second-highest elected office.

But while the four Democrats tended to agree on the majority of the issues, it was the two Republicans who were able to most starkly set themselves apart between more moderate and conservative lanes.

The position they are vying for is a largely ceremonial role presiding over the Senate. The lieutenant governor occasionally casts a tie-breaking vote; serves on the Committee on Committees, helping to choose committee assignments; and assumes the role of governor should the head of state become incapacitated.

VTDigger hosted a debate among the four Democratic candidates — former Rep. Kitty Toll, D-Danville; former Lt. Gov. David Zuckerman, of Hinesburg; Rep. Charlie Kimbell, D-Woodstock; and executive director of the Vermont Council on World Affairs Patricia Preston, of Burlington — followed by another between Sen. Joe Benning, R-Caledonia, of Lyndonville, and Gregory Thayer, a former Rutland City alderman.

The Democrats

The first debate, among the Democrats, was largely subdued. None of the candidates were willing to say that they wouldn’t seek higher office if they were to serve as lieutenant governor, and all of them talked about the role as a way to amplify Vermonters’ voices and enfranchise people typically outside the political process. 

Zuckerman — the only candidate to have previously served in statewide office — suggested bridging human services and education as a way to tackle some of Vermont’s biggest problems, like a lack of suitable housing. 

He was also the only one who expressed a desire to raise taxes on the wealthy, arguing they weren’t as acutely feeling the impacts of rising prices for commodities like food and gas. 

“I will be the one that speaks up and says we can raise more revenue from those who right now aren’t feeling” the rising costs of inflation, Zuckerman said. 

Zuckerman first won the lieutenant governorship in 2016 and left the post after two terms to run for governor. He easily won the 2020 Democratic primary, but was crushed in the general election by Republican Gov. Phil Scott.

The question of taxes was one of several issues on which Zuckerman took the left-most stance. He was the only candidate to say he’d end qualified immunity, which protects public servants, including police officers, from being sued for violating citizens’ civil rights while on the job. And he took heat from Toll, who implied he had failed to find common ground with Scott.

Kimbell, meanwhile, proclaimed himself a “moderate Democrat,” citing his business career and reiterating his focus on workforce development. 

The Woodstock resident is completing his third term in the House.

“I get along with the (Scott) administration on most issues,” he said. “I have no problems working with a Republican administration.”

Asked about the opioid epidemic, Kimbell called for more police officers to stop drug crime.

“We have a need for increasing our enforcement,” Kimbell said, pointing to recent gunfire incidents in Springfield

Toll, who served a dozen years in the House and two terms as chair of the Appropriations Committee, pointed to those leadership years as proof of her ability to cooperate. She talked about working on the state budget and how much that prepared her for the role of lieutenant governor.

Asked about the most pressing issue facing Vermonters, she was the only candidate to single out the climate crisis. 

“What I have learned as I've been crisscrossing the state, the number one issue that I am hearing from Vermonters is climate change,” she said. “Vermont is becoming a climate refuge.”

Preston may be least familiar to Vermonters, having never served in elected office. The Council on World Affairs, founded in 1952 and formerly associated with UVM, hosts international visitors and educational events in Vermont.

Yet despite that lack of experience, Preston argued that her current role, which has allowed her to meet people across the state, is more than enough qualification. 

“I am uniquely qualified for the role of lieutenant governor because in large part I've been doing a lot of the work over the last 10 years,” she said. “I've been meeting with Vermonters, I've been elevating their voices, and I've been building a coalition of folks across the state to look at Vermont's most pressing issues.”

The Republicans

Benning, a six-term senator, emphasized his experience in the upper chamber, while Thayer — who’s never served in the Statehouse — positioned himself as an outsider. 

“I’m the first person on this stage … who wants to talk about the job,” Benning said. “I bring a great deal of institutional knowledge.”

“I do not have the Montpelier mentality,” Thayer said, instead calling himself a “professional businessman” with experience as a banker and accountant. 

Thayer has been an outspoken voice for the state’s most conservative voters. He’s organized town halls opposing critical race theory and attended the Jan. 6 insurrection in Washington, D.C. Previously, he served as a Rutland City alderman. 

Benning previously held the role of Senate minority leader. Voting with his libertarian leanings, Benning has aligned himself with Scott and spoken out against former President Donald Trump. 

Whereas the Democrats remained mostly cordial, Thayer and Benning butted heads more directly over ideological differences. 

The divide between the two candidates was most apparent while they discussed Trump and the Jan. 6 Capitol riot.

“I’m proud I was there. I did not go into the Capitol,” Thayer said.

Benning, an attorney, said that there’s no legal evidence to suggest widespread fraud in the 2020 election.

“My party has got to wake up and realize we have got to move on from the 2020 election,” he said.

While both candidates agreed that issues like small government and individual liberty should define what it means to be a Republican, they found little common ground on the specifics of the Vermont Republican Party. 

Benning stressed his ability to work across the aisle while serving in an “extreme minority” in the state Legislature, which Thayer knocked.

“It’s leadership, and personally I think you lack it,” Thayer said. 

“Greg, you have chastised Phil Scott at every turn you possibly can, including supporting an effort in your own Republican Party to exclude both him and me from the party,” Benning said.

On policy, arguably Thayer’s most radical stance involved replacing “all taxes” with a single “consumption tax.”

Although he said he’s “working on” the specifics, a consumption tax generally refers to a tax on dollars spent, as opposed to an income tax, which taxes dollars earned.

As he did for much of the night, Benning took a more pragmatic approach to the question of tax relief.

“One of the obstacles in front of us is to recognize who the people are in the building that we have to deal with,” he said. “And sometimes you can't just walk in there and say sweepingly I'm going to get rid of all taxes. It doesn't work.”

Instead, he pointed to smaller tax reform efforts, like exempting taxes on military pensions, which lawmakers passed in part this year.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misspelled Charlie Kimbell's surname and misstated his status in the Legislature.

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Ethan Weinstein

About Ethan

Ethan Weinstein is a general assignment reporter focusing on Windsor County and the surrounding area. Previously, he worked as an assistant editor for the Mountain Times and wrote for the Vermont Standard.

Email: [email protected]

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